More Than Two Thirds of American Youth Aren’t Good Enough for the Military, Says the Military

The military won’t accept people prescribed ADHD medications—but that doesn’t mean soldiers aren’t using Adderall

The Airman's Coin Ceremony during the final week of Air Force Basic Military Training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, April 4, 2013. After this event, individuals are no longer called a ''trainee.'' They've earned the right to be called ''Airman.'' Many Airman consider this to be one of the most significant events in their career. Kevin E. Schmidt/ZUMA Press/Corbis

With the wars that America has fought over the past 13 years largely wound down, the military is trimming its budget and slimming its ranks to levels not seen since before World War II. And while not so long ago standards for recruits were relaxed to grow America's fighting forces, now they're being tightened. According to a new estimate from the Pentagon, not even a third of Americans between the ages of 17 and 34 could qualify to join up, reports the Wall Street Journal. On top of that, even more potential recruits are ineligible to join the military, given tightening rules around dress and decorum.

Some of the reason that the military rejects potential recruits—obesity, illegal drug use—reflect concerns about combat readiness. But the military also rejects recruits who have used Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) medication within the past year. Whether this restriction makes scientific sense or whether it's a case of unwarranted exclusion isn't so clear. It does, however, belie the military's mixed history with the medications.

ADDitude Magazine, a magazine for those with ADD/ADHD, makes the case for service:

It's too bad that such restrictions are in place, because military service is often an excellent option for people with ADD/ADHD. After all, many people with ADD/ADHD do well in highly structured environments and thrive on activity. It's hard to imagine an environment that provides more structure and activity than military service.

But from the Pentagon's perspective, being dependent on medication is risky: restrictions also apply to diabetics who need regular insulin, for example.

Stiil, over past decades, the Pentagon's restrictions on people who have use anti-ADHD drugs like Ritalin and Adderall have slackened. Back in 1996, says the Sun Sentinel, the Pentagon would reject anyone who had taken Ritalin for more than a year past age 12. Now, the restriction only stands if the the person used the drugs within the past year, or “if he or she displays "significant" evidence of ADD/ADHD symptoms, such as impulsivity and distractibility,” says ADDitiude Magazine.

But there may actually be another compelling reason to keep drugs like Adderall and Ritalin off the battlefield, said Richard Friedman for the New York Times in 2012. The issue here isn't just ADHD and combat effectiveness, but also the potential side effects of focus-enhancing drugs.

Just because rules preclude people who rely on Ritalin and Adderall from joining up doesn't mean those drugs aren't being used, says Friedman. During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, he says, Ritalin and Adderall use by active-duty troops “increased by nearly 1,000 percent in five years, to 32,000 from 3,000.”

According to Friedman, this rising use of anti-ADHD medication could be partly to blame for surging rates of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Laboratory research seems to suggest that drugs like Adderall and Ritalin—medications designed to help people focus and remember—can also open troops up to memory's dark side:

Since PTSD is basically a pathological form of learning known as fear conditioning, stimulants could plausibly increase the risk of getting the disorder.

That focus on a leaner fighting force means the military is able to be more choosy than in war time. For those looking to enlist the bar is being set higher, and while weight can be lost and tattoos can be removed, for those reliant on anti-ADHD medications it seems there's little they can do.

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